To An Unknown God

Message for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (5/14/2023)

Acts 17:22-31



I think we underestimate the Apostle Paul if we peg him as an overconfident and self-satisfied proselytizer, sneering at non-Christian modes of spirituality in his witness to Jesus. At first glance, his portrait in our first reading from Acts today might lend itself to that characterization, as Paul stands in front of the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens and comments publicly on Greek paganism in light of his own confession. “Athenians,” he begins, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” by which we might assume he means, I see how superstitious and idolatrous you are. We might imagine that Paul is inclined to disparage Greek religiosity in favor of his allegedly indisputable claim to truth, that he has no patience for anything resembling pluralism. And, it’s true that Paul is bold in his interpretation of the events of the crucifixion and resurrection. But on a closer read, I’m convinced that he’s more sensitive to spiritual difference than we might think.

Consider, first of all, that Paul is thoughtful enough to explore Athens – a great center of learning, philosophy, and religious expression – before he addresses its people. He immerses himself deeply enough in the Athenian context to notice the altar “to an unknown god” in the first place, which sparks his curiosity. I suppose it’s possible to paint this altar, one among many, as yet another instance of pagan superstition, as if the Athenians are just trying to cover all their religious bases. But, I have a hunch that the altar represents something more sincere, that it expresses an earnest conviction on the part of the Athenians that, even amid the vast Greek pantheon, there nonetheless remains something of the divine that passes human understanding, something that eludes our grasp. In erecting an altar to an “unknown god,” or in Greek agnōstō theō, could it be that the Athenians practice a healthy agnosticism?[1]

If so, they’ve already perceived something of the God whom Paul stands up to proclaim. The God of Israel, the God of Jesus, is often veiled even as God is revealed. God is reluctant to be named, for instance, to be seen face to face, to be identified as a contender in the people’s spiritual wrestling. A teenage girl smuggles God into the world in Bethlehem of all places, far from the deadly gaze of Herod and from the sight of all but a few humble witnesses. God is nowhere to be seen at the crucifixion – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – neither is there any lasting certainty in the accounts of the resurrection; the faithful glimpse the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread, yes, nevertheless he vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

It seems that God reserves the right to holy obscurity, what Christian mysticism calls the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the terrible and fascinating mystery of God. Barbara Brown Taylor traces this idea to the biblical image of the dense, dark cloud at the summit of Mount Sinai that bears God’s presence to Moses in Exodus 19. “It is an entirely unnatural darkness,” she writes, “so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say ‘dark’ that it has its own word in the Bible: araphel, reserved for God’s exclusive use.”[2] Taylor goes on to quote the mystics: [excerpt from Learning to Walk in the Dark, p.48].

Whenever we erect altars, in other words, those altars are always, in one sense, dedicated to an unknown God. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul himself acknowledges this truth: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” he writes, “but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”[3]

I believe it’s this sensibility that leads Paul to address the Athenians at the Areopagus as the account unfolds in our reading from Acts. I believe he senses a certain honesty in their pursuit of spiritual truth, and “rather than… [point his] fingers in righteous indignation,” to quote William Willimon, in his proclamation Paul intends to “minister to their searching.”[4]

Friends, will you let the age-old witness to a crucified and risen Lord minister to yours? If you’ve ever been baffled at God’s elusiveness, frustrated by God’s silence, devastated by God’s absence, you’re not alone. Who among us wouldn’t prefer that God make God’s presence known in clear and unmistakable ways? But, God reserves the right to holy obscurity. Nonetheless, by the gift of God’s Spirit, might we get a glimpse of God’s purpose in the life of an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, a prophet and teacher compelling enough to raise the ire of the powers and pay the price with his life, yet whose first followers swear he is alive again?

On this side of eternity, we see only dimly, as in a mirror. But, if Christ is our mirror, then he is “a mirror of the Father’s heart,”[5] to quote Martin Luther, or perhaps more appropriately on this day, “a mirror of the Mother’s heart.” As we seek a God who remains largely unknown to us, even so God draws near in a sacred story and a holy meal and in the faces of friends and strangers. And from one day to the next, in God “we live and move and have our being,” trusting that what we know of God is enough until that day when we see face to face.

[1] Jeremy L. Williams,

[2] Learning to Walk in the Dark, 46-8.

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[4] As cited by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, 474.

[5] Explanation of the Third Article of the Creed, The Large Catechism, The Book of Concord, 440.

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